Pain and Pretence: a story for Friday the Thirteenth

Updated: Feb 12

Louis Bayman analyses the tactics of the new global hard right and why traditional left politics has proven to be an inadequate response in the 2019 general election.

15 December 2019.

Pundits inadvertently got it right when they hailed Boris Johnson as clownish. It’s just that he is more Stephen King than Coco. This was the cruelty election: the political culmination of a decade of austerity and the destination point for the hard right of the Conservative Brexiteers.

The campaign began with Jacob Rees-Mogg explaining that the victims of 2017’s Grenfell Tower disaster died because they lacked common sense. It ended with Johnson refusing to look at a four-year-old boy lying on a hospital floor to be treated for pneumonia. These are the men who won.

Despite coming only two and a half years after the last one, this election represented the first full articulation in the UK of two things that have come to have a decisive importance in modern politics, not just here but across the world. Those are pain, and pretence. Together, they are fundamentally reshaping how politics function, and have the potential to empty democracy of its purpose, to achieve progressive change through popular action.

Over 20 years ago, trying to explain New Labour’s landslide victory, Theresa May told Conservative conference delegates that people considered them to be the Nasty Party. In this election this was less a source of shame than a badge of honour. The Prime Minister has in his career as a journalist insulted black people, Muslim women, Muslims in general, Jews, Africans, gays, the working classes, single mothers, their children, women drivers, women graduates, and on, and on. This is the politics that won.


How is it possible to insult nearly the entire electorate, yet win? The mystery only grows when we look at what the Tories offer: nothing. No significant details on investment, no plan to tackle inequality, naught to say on social care, and only the flimsiest of promises on the very existence of the NHS. As a political strategy, it is the addition of insult to injury. It makes no sense if we consider democracy as existing to improve the lives of the majority.

We need to acknowledge that improving lives is no longer the point for a new global hard right, which has come to victory most famously in the shape of Trump in the USA, but also in an international movement comprising Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and many others either in power or contending for it.

The principal offer these leaders make is not those of prosperity or welfare that defined political aims for much of the 20th century. They instead offer what historian Timothy Snyder has called ‘sadopopulism’: the opportunity at a mass level to indulge in sadism.

Sadopoulism is marked by authoritarian strongmen whose followings are gained not by promising concrete change to make their supporters’ lives materially better. Instead, they offer the opportunity to make the lives of those weaker than them worse. Hence the crucial importance of bullying personalities, harsh immigration policies, racism, climate change denial, white supremacy, and male chauvinism: they confirm the power of dominant groups over those who are more systematically oppressed.

It is pointless simply to object that sadopopulist policies will hurt – or even, in the case of catastrophic climate change, cause the planet to burn. This is what they are designed to do. The evidence is that people will even support policies that will further impoverish them – Brexit being a prime example – so long as it provides the hit of lashing out at the foreigners, the fifth columnists, the poorer, the more persecuted and frightened.

Brexit as Blitz

If pain is the first element of the new politics of the decade, pretence is the second. The front line of modern politics is made up of extravagant pastiches: Boris Johnson doing his best William Churchill impression, Jacob Rees-Mogg enacting a demented vision of a Victorian patriarch, Dominic Raab as an action-man figurine. An army of 60-somethings respond to warnings of Brexit hardship by invoking a ‘blitz spirit’ that their parents endured, but they never knew.

This is what happens when the right-wing press have one of their own installed in power. It brings, as sociologist William Davies has noted, the final merging of politics and media, with no distinction between the two. There is little even to lose in being found out, because the purpose is not to prove a point but sow confusion, to dishonour public life, and bring democratic engagement down with it.

It is nothing new that politicians lie, although it has reached unprecedented levels when 88% of Conservative Party adverts on Facebook are found to contain misleading claims. But what is different is that everybody knows that these are lies. Nobody believes we are threatened by an ‘EUSSR’, or that Germany’s strength in Europe resembles that of the 1930s, or that Britain is an oppressed nation. The point, however, is to rally your side, and engage them in a simulation of wartime commitment.

Once again, these politics are less about tangible results whose fulfilment can be verified, and instead a performative position whose aim is to push debate further into the realms of fantasy. The two things, pain and pretence, are not unconnected. When sadopopulists ensure that nothing material is on offer, politics becomes unmoored from reality, and emotions assume a role more important than facts.

It is then no good simply pointing out that the politics of the new government will hurt people, when that is what they are consciously designed to do. It is no good pointing to the debasement and dishonesty of the campaign when the aim is to discredit the idea of a democratic public sphere. Much was made of Johnson’s apparent cowardice in avoiding difficult interviews during the campaign, but this is also a refusal of standards of accountability. We are faced with a political mission that seeks to undermine the very foundations of democracy.

Labour sought to frame this election as Hope versus Fear. Another way to look at it was pain versus compassion, and another again is as reality versus fantasy. We are now thrown into a desperate defensive fight, to maintain our NHS, to defend the rights of migrants and minorities from persecution, to keep our rights at work, and to protect the bases of democracy.

We must look after each other, and we must develop a wider politics centred on compassion and the real possibility for material change. Our lives depend on it.

Louis Bayman is Lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton.

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